Reopening the Buddy Holly plane crash cause? Not likely

Photo: Civil Aeronautics Board
When Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and pilot Roger Peterson died in the February 1959 plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa while enroute to Fargo, the Civil Aeronautics Board ruled the cause was pilot error and weather.

Another pilot, L.J. Coon is getting some attention in the news today, telling the Mason City Globe Gazette that the NTSB is considering reopening the investigation, based on what Coon has submitted.

Maybe, baby. But probably not.

The NTSB is nowhere near ready to reopen the investigation.

“The submission has to be new and it has to be something not previously considered,” NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss said this afternoon, indicating the agency will consider what Coon submitted.

But little of Coon’s theory, which was detailed in January in the Storm Lake (Iowa) Pilot, is new.

The 1947 Beechcraft Bonanza fuselage had a history of in-flight issues, he said, and he questions whether newly-installed Sperry attitude gyro instruments had been properly tested, and whether the “V tail” hat had been fitted to the plane worked properly.

Finally, Coon addresses rumors that there was some kind of “commotion” among the men on the plane shortly after takeoff. After a handgun reportedly belonging to Holly was found in the field months after the crash, there were also rumors that it may have gone off accidentally, disrupting the flight. One book on the subject claims that one witness who had seen the wreckage claimed there was a bullet hole through the back of the pilot’s seat, and that the Mason City newspaper had reported that two chambers of the six-shooter pistol were empty when it was found, but no evidence of a shot occurring during the ill-fated flight has ever been produced.

Coon theorizes that if Holly, in the front passenger seat, had twisted to his left to face the rear passengers, his foot could have struck the right rudder pedal, sending the plane veering sideways and forcing pilot Peterson to struggle to correct the aircraft while already dealing with a heavy workload. The pedal was placed so close to the passenger’s seat by the manufacturer that they were sometimes removed to avoid just such an accident, he indicates.

Some other reports theorize that Holly and Richardson had attempted to switch seats while the plane was in the air, based on the pattern of ejection of the victims, but that can never be proven or disproven.

Coon finds it difficult to believe that Peterson, with four years and over 700 hours of flight experience, would have failed moments into a routine flight, essentially flying a shallow dive into the ground while thinking he was climbing. “Roger would have flown out and about this airport at night, under multiple different conditions. He had to be very familiar with all directions of this airport in and out,” and had 128 hours of experience in that particular aircraft, he said.

That’s an odd assertion for a pilot to make because it happens all of the time. Any pilot who’s ever wandered into the clouds knows what you think an airplane is doing isn’t what it’s doing. John F. Kennedy Jr.’s plane crash is a perfect example.

The plane’s 21-year-old pilot was not instrument rated and the average life expectancy of a non-instrument-rated pilot in the conditions Holly’s plane entered is about three minutes, according to the Air Safety Foundation.

This report could have been written last month, but it was a half-century ago. If the weather is bad where you are, despite a decent forecast, the weather is bad. Period. The board’s commentary: “This accident, like so many before it, was caused by the pilot’s decision to undertake a flight in which the likelihood of encountering instrument conditions existed, in the mistaken belief that he could cope with en route instrument weather conditions, without having the necessary familiarization with the instruments in the aircraft and without being properly certificated to fly solely by instruments.”

The original investigation said the pilot never received weather warnings, only enroute weather from Minneapolis, Redwood Falls, and Alexandria.

It was already snowing at Minneapolis, and the general forecast for the area along the intended route indicated deteriorating weather conditions. Considering all of these facts and the fact that the company was certificated to fly in accordance with visual flight rules only, both day and night, together with the pilot’s unproved ability to fly by instrument, the decision to go seems most imprudent.

It is believe that shortly after takeoff pilot Peterson entered an area of complete darkness and one in which there was no definite horizon; that the snow conditions and the lack of horizon required him to rely solely on flight instruments for aircraft attitude and orientation.

The high gusty winds and the attendant turbulence which existed this night would have caused the rate of climb indicator and the turn and bank indicator to fluctuate to such an extent that an interpretation of these instruments so far as attitude control is concerned would have been difficult to a pilot as inexperienced as Peterson. The airspeed and altimeter alone would not have provided him with sufficient reference to maintain control of the pitch attitude. With his limited experience the pilot would tend to rely on the attitude gyro which is relatively stable under these conditions.

Service experience with the use of the attitude gyro has clearly indicated confusion among pilots during the transition period or when alternating between conventional and attitude gyros. Since Peterson had received his instrument training in aircraft equipped with the conventional type artificial horizon, and since this instrument and the attitude gyro are opposite in their pictorial display of the pitch attitude, it is probably that the reverse sensing would at times produce reverse control action. This is especially true of instrument flight conditions requiring a high degree of concentration or requiring multiple function, as would be the case when flying instrument conditions in turbulence without a copilot. The directional gyro was found caged and it is possible that it was never used during the short flight. However, this evidence is not conclusive. If the directional gyro were caged throughout the flight this could only have added to the pilot’s confusion.

So while the headlines today are getting some attention, the odds are the NTSB isn’t going to do what Coon claims it is.

There is one fascinating revelation in the stories about the new theories: The wreckage of the plane still exists, though the owner of it won’t say where it is.

Related: Full CAB report on the Buddy Holly crash.